By John Carroll
The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the elite teams in the NBA and will have home court advantage at least through the first two rounds of the playoffs if they advance. They are a terrific offensive team that is led by the scoring of their two All Stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City is an unstoppable team in the open court where Westbrook pushes the ball and Durant and James Harden fill the wings. In addition the Thunder gets to the foul line and make opponents pay. They lead the league in free throw shooting, and in close playoff games the Thunder will have a major advantage in that very important phase of the game. Harden is the Thunder’s sixth starter. He is a prolific scorer who takes a lot of pressure off Durant and Westbrook. He can create his own shot against the premier defenders in the league. There is no other team in the NBA that can put three scorers on the court at the same time and can create a shot at any time by themselves. This is why the Thunder are such an explosive offensive team that could advance to the NBA Finals if everyone stays healthy.
If the Thunder are to advance throughout the playoffs they must be able exploit their strengths and hide their weaknesses. They have no low-post scoring to speak of. Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison do not provide a low-post threat offensively and they cannot get easy baskets or get to the foul line. They score only off offensive rebounds, interior passes on drives and an occasional pick and pop. Secondly, the Thunder must stop turning the ball over in the playoffs. They are dead last in the NBA in most turnovers per game. Against the strong defensive teams they will face, their poor decision making could cost them. Thirdly, their bench must provide a much stronger effort on the defensive end of the floor. The Thunder starters are a solid defensive unit with excellent shot blocking and rebounding but there is a drop off defensively when they go to their bench and this must be corrected if they want to advance throughout the playoffs.
After winning the NBA championship a year ago, the Dallas Mavericks have regressed and find themselves as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. The Mavs made a decision to tear their team apart by not re-signing their own free agents -- Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler -- for the slight chance they could repeat as champs. In their attempt to land free agents this summer to play with Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks now find themselves clawing and scratching to survive in the first round.
The Mavericks have missed the abilities of Chandler more than anyone expected. He was not only their defensive catalyst but he was their locker room leader. His leadership has not been there this season and the team has missed him desperately. Chandler provided post defense, cleaned up all the defensive mistakes on the perimeter, made free throws and played with tremendous spirit. His ability to finish around the basket and attack the offensive glass is one of the hidden areas he is missed sorely. He got a jump shooting team like the Mavericks a ton of extra possessions on the glass. With him they would have been a title contender again, without him they do not have a chance.
Their matchup with the Thunder is a favorable one. The Thunder will not present as many problems for the Mavericks with their frontline of Perkins and Ibaka. They are defensive specialists and do not present much of a problem from an offensive standpoint. The Mavericks may even be able to start or play Brandan Wright a ton of minutes at the center position versus the Thunder. He gives them a lot more offensive punch than having to play Brendan Haywood. They need to do several things to compete in this series. They need to make the Thunder play in the half court. They must not let it become a track meet and their transition defense must be superb. The Thunder will call a high volume of isolations for Durant so the Mavs must make good decisions on which players they can help or double off of. In addition they must pack their defense in to keep Westbrook out of the paint. Durant is going to get his points and there is no game plan to stop that from happening. But they must not let Westbrook go crazy and have big scoring games.
Oklahoma City Thunder Offense
• The Thunder put tremendous pressure on their opponent’s defense with their ability to score 103.1 points per game and shoot 47.1 percent from the field.
• The Thunder rank fifth in the NBA in fast break points with 16.1 per game. Westbrook puts incredible pressure on their opponent’s transition defense with his speed and athleticism in the open court. He pushes the ball foul line to foul line quicker than any point guard in the league. The Thunder want to play at a fast pace and utilize their young legs and athleticism
• With the explosive one-on-one abilities of Durant, Westbrook and Harden the Thunder get to the foul line at a high rate. They attempt 26.4 free throws per game which ranks them second in the NBA. Durant gets to the line 7.6 times per game.
• They led the NBA in free throw shooting at 80.6 percent. This is a big time advantage throughout the game but especially in the fourth quarter, where the Thunder convert their high volume of free throw attempts.
• With a high volume of one-on-one play from their Big Three, the Thunder are a very low assist team. They are 29th in the league with only 18.5 assists per game.
• The Thunder’s Achilles' heel is their turnover rate. They are dead last in the league in turnovers with 16.3 per game. Durant, Westbrook and Harden combine for 9.6 turnovers per game.
• 49 percent of Oklahoma City’s scoring comes from Durant and Westbrook. They combine for 51.6 points per game.
• Scott Brooks will get Durant the ball in several locations for isolations: midrange post-ups, at the elbow and at the free throw line. Most teams wait for him to put it on the floor before doubling and they are keenly aware of their spacing versus the doubles.
• Westbrook does not need a play or set to score. He can create his own shot at any time. He attacks the rim with reckless abandon and can pull up into his jump shot at any time.
• Harden is the team’s best playmaker. Brooks will put him into pick-and-rolls where Harden is tremendous at reading the defense and making the correct play.
• Oklahoma City must be alert to the Mavericks going zone at any time during the series. Especially if they want to eliminate isolations for Durant, penetration by Westbrook or if they want to keep certain players on the court for offense.
Dallas Mavericks Offense
• The Mavericks have had major problems with their shooting this season. Their field goal percentage of 44.3 percent has them ranked 20th in the NBA.
• They have also been an extremely average team from the 3-point line, shooting only 34.0 percent. The problem is that they rely heavily on the 3-point shot, attempting 22.2 shots per game, which is the fourth most in the NBA.
• A very high percentage of Jason Kidd’s, Vince Carter’s and Jason Terry’s shots come from the 3-point line. Carter shoots 33 percent of his shots from the 3-point line this season, Terry shoots 38 percent and 74 percent of Kidd's field goal attempts are 3-point shots
• The Mavericks do not get to the foul line and that is a problem especially in the playoffs. They only attempt 20.2 free throws per game, 26th in the NBA.
• The departure of Chandler has affected the Mavericks as much on offense as defense. He set tremendous picks and finished at the rim on lob passes. He was excellent converting around the rim. His relentless attack on the offensive glass led to easy baskets and opponent’s fouls.
• Nowitzki’s shooting woes have caused problems for the Mavericks all season. Nowitzki has attempted 16.7 field goals this season which matches his career numbers. However, this season he is shooting only .457 this year compared to his career .475 percent. He has shot 48.0 percent in wins and only 43.0 in losses.
• The Mavericks struggle to get paint points. They rank 26th in league, scoring 37.3 paint points. They settle for too many low-percentage jump shots because they have no one that can break down their defender and get to the rim.
• The Mavs are dangerous in transition with Nowitzki trailing for 3-point shots or Terry roaming on the perimeter.
• The Mavs will look to get Dirk the ball just off the block, at the top of the key or at the nail for one-on-one isolation/post-ups.
• The Mavs will post Vince Carter and Shawn Marion if they have mismatches.
Russell Westbrook: Westbrook is a special player. He has freakish athleticism which has made him an impossible player to defend. Westbrook averaged 23.6 points and 5.4 assists per game. He is a one-man fast break. He pushes the ball from foul line to foul line with tremendous speed and is the main reason the Thunder score 16.1 points in transition. Westbrook averages 3.6 turnovers per game and must continue to grow in his decision making in order for the Thunder to be a championship team. The Thunder will go as far as Westbrook takes them. If he plays well in the playoffs, shows the maturity needed at the correct times and does not try too hard to take games over, the Thunder will be a tough out. He needs to strike a balance between his own scoring and keeping his teammates involved, especially Kevin Durant.
Jason Kidd: Kidd is an 18-year veteran who got off to an awful start to the season. He has posted career lows in points and assists this year. He has been injured and missed 18 games this season. He can still run this team and is a brilliant facilitator. Rick Carlisle has closely monitored his minutes to keep him fresh for the postseason. Shawn Marion has allowed him to defend slower perimeter players while Marion guards the quicker point guards. Kidd, who has shot the ball poorly all season, has shown a positive spike recently. He is shooting 48.0 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from the 3-point line in the last five games.
Thabo Sefolosha: Thabo has been the Thunder's glue guy and a solid overall role player. Thabo averages only 4.8 points per game but that is not why he is on the court. He starts and plays for his defense. Playing alongside the NBA’s leading scorer, Sefolosha’s main responsibility is to defend the opponent's best perimeter player. He can space the court and make open 3-point shots. This season he is shooting a career best 44.0 percent from the 3-point line.
Delonte West: West has played in 44 games this season for the Mavericks and started 33 of them. He has delivered beyond expectations this season for Dallas considering he is a minimum salary player. He has given them quality minutes at either guard position and is their best on-the-ball defender. He will be called on to defend Westbrook in this series and limit his dribble penetration. He is a hard-nosed player who understands his role on this team. He is an excellent third or fourth scoring option. West can make an open jump shot and is a fearless player taking the ball to the rim when the opportunity presents itself. He has averaged 9.6 points, 3.2 assists and is shooting 35.5 percent from the 3-point line.
Kevin Durant: Durant has had an MVP season for the Thunder. He finished as the leading scorer in the NBA this season, just beating out Kobe Bryant with 28.0 points per game. Even more impressive is the fact that Durant’s shooting percentages have improved this season -- 50.0 percent from the field and 39.0 percent from the 3 point line. At the appropriate times, Durant needs to take games over in this season’s playoffs if the Thunder are going to advance to the NBA Finals. He has worked to improve himself defensively and, with his length and athleticism, is very difficult to shoot over. Durant is a big-time rebounder from the small forward position at 8.0 rebounds per game.
Shawn Marion: Marion has been the most reliable and versatile player for the Mavericks this season. His production of 10.7 points and 7.4 rebounds has been solid. His most impressive contributions have been on the defensive end of the floor. He has been a defensive stopper for Rick Carlisle assigned to the most difficult matchup that evening. Marion has the versatility to defend point guards to power forwards. His ability to defend point guards has made it easier to play Kidd and put him on a slower, less athletic player.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka is having the best season of his career for Oklahoma City. He is a terrific defender and an even better shot-blocker. He currently leads the NBA in blocked shots with 3.6 per game. Ibaka is an aggressive rebounder, grabbing 7.6 per game, and is relentless on the offensive glass, averaging 2.9 per game. He has worked on the range of his jump shot and is able to step out and keep his defender honest. He has upped his scoring output to 9.1 this season.
Dirk Nowitzki: Dirk got off to a horrible start to the season because he came into training camp out of shape. He has slowly regained his All-Star form but his shooting numbers have been down all year. Nowitzki’s field goal percentage for the season of 45.6 percent has dropped considerably from last years 51.7 percent. In addition, his rebounding numbers are a mediocre 6.8 per game compared to his career number of 8.3 per game.
Dirk has been one of the elite scorers in the NBA in recent years. It has been impossible for defenders to contest his jump shot due to his 7-foot height and his high release. He takes and makes some of the most awkward, off-balance shots you can imagine. He loves to operate at the top of the key or elbow where it is hard to double him. Nowitzki is a prolific free throw shooter, shooting 89.0 percent for the season.
Kendrick Perkins: Perkins provides toughness and a bit of an edge to the Thunder. He has put up respectable numbers this year with 5.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. Perk is a physical low-post player who has a high basketball IQ on the defensive side of the ball. On a team that is known for its offensive production, Perkins is their defensive anchor. He is their rim protector and is not afraid to give a hard foul to send a message.
Brendan Haywood: Haywood has posted average numbers for a starting center that plays 21.4 minutes per game. He has averaged 5.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. He has however earned his pay with his defense. He defends the low post one-on-one and has been the defensive anchor for the Mavs this season with the departure of Tyson Chandler.
Oklahoma City Thunder
James Harden: Harden had his best year in the NBA, averaging a career high 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists. His field goal percentage is also at a career best at 49.1 percent. He is the Thunder’s sixth starter, averaging 31.4 minutes per game. He combines with Durant and Westbrook to provide the Thunder with 66 percent of their scoring. Harden loves to utilize the pick-and-roll and is a tremendous playmaker coming off the pick. He has been excellent from the 3-point line, attempting 4.7 shots from that range this season and making 39.0 percent.
Derek Fisher: Fisher was brought to the Thunder to give them veteran leadership. He has been in numerous playoff games and knows how to help his team win. Fisher is a tough, hard-nosed guard with a high basketball IQ. Although he is shooting only 32.0 percent from 3-point range, he has the ability to knock down shots and keep defenses honest. He can space the court and open up driving lanes for Durant and Harden if he is in the game.
Nick Collison: Collison is a high energy player who excels as a defender and rebounder. He does a lot of little things to help his team win. Collison is a limited offensive player, but he is an aggressive offensive rebounder, averaging 2.0 offensive boards in short minutes.
Daequan Cook: Cook will come into the game looking to score. He has excellent range on his jump shot. This season he attempted 4.0 shots from the 3-point line per game and made 35.0 percent of his shots from that distance.
Nazr Mohammed: Mohammed is a big body who the Thunder will throw into the game only if they have deep foul problems. He can defend and rebound.
Jason Terry: Terry has had a solid year for the Mavs. His scoring has been consistent, averaging 15.1 points per game, but his shooting numbers have dropped a bit just like everyone else on the Mavs. Terry shot 45.1 percent last season and this year his shooting has dropped to 43.1 percent from the field. He has been a committed defender and given a consistent effort all year long. Terry has always been a big shot maker and the Mavs hope that he will be able to carry them offensively from the perimeter in the playoffs.
Vince Carter: Carter has been a bargain for the Mavericks this season. He has been an unselfish, team-first player. Carter can create off the dribble (not at the level he is accustomed to), post mismatches and shoot the 3-point shot. He has done whatever Rick Carlisle has asked of him this season whether it has been as a starter or a role player off the bench. Currently he is averaging 10.2 points per game and shooting 36.5 percent from the 3-point line.
Roddy Beaubois: Beaubois has been terribly inconsistent this season for the Mavs. He has shown flashes of brilliance followed by mediocre play. Beaubois has shot the ball poorly this season, shooting only 42.3 percent. The Mavs rested Jason Kidd in the Mavs' last game and Roddy scored 16 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and had 5 assists in 38 minutes.
Ian Mahinmi: Mahinmi is a backup big man whose production has slipped as the season has progressed. He is a versatile scorer who will not see many minutes unless Haywood and Wright get into foul trouble.
Prediction: Thunder in 6